Can one be a Christian and also be a Zen Buddhist? One might think insofar as “Buddhism” and “Christianity” share a different set of doctrines and traditions that Christianity and Zen are mutually exclusive conceptual systems. However, Christianity and Zen actually have a lot in common which you strip Christianity of its doctrinal and liturgical accoutrements.
First, let me make a disclaimer: I am no expert on Buddhism or Zen (or Christianity, for that matter). I will freely admit that I have a Western perspective on Zen insofar as my exposure to Zen is largely due to Western popularizers. Nevertheless, insofar as Zen Buddhism itself does not commit itself to any explicit theology or doctrine, I feel it is fairly amenable to translation across spiritual cultures (but perhaps that is just my Western bias for syncretism.)
But why Zen? What’s the point? If you are a Christian, isn’t that enough? Does not the Western Christian tradition contain within itself everything one needs for “spiritual success,” whatever that means?
I mean, it’s not like Christianity doesn’t have its own tradition of monasticism and contemplation. This is a long and venerable tradition and I don’t think Zen is a “replacement” for that tradition of spiritual contemplation.
Nevertheless, I am of the belief that an appreciation of Zen can do wonders to complement the Christian mystical tradition.
So What Is Zen?
It’s notoriously hard to pin down exactly what Zen is, mostly because it does not necessarily have an explicit set of beliefs and doctrines that one must believe in order to be a “Zen Buddhist” in good standing. People have described it almost as a kind of life philosophy rather than a “religion” per se, especially given its decided lack of emphasis on believing in supernatural doctrines.
So what is it? In a nutshell, Zen Buddhism is all about the pursuit of enlightenment by means of experiential reality.
Zen and the pursuit of enlightenment go hand and hand. But what does it mean to be enlightened? Is it the same as Christian salvation? Not quite.
The first point to say about Zen’s notion of enlightenment is that, whatever it is, it cannot be put into words. So our attempt to think and write about it using concepts and language is a non-starter.
But if enlightenment cannot be described, then how do we know what we are seeking when we go to a Zen Master for instruction? How do we know we aren’t just talking nonsense?
That brings me to my second point: seeking enlightenment often makes it harder to achieve. That is to say, the harder you strive to be enlightened, the farther away you will be from achieving it. This is the paradox of effort: the more we try to be enlightened, the farther we are from enlightenment.
Nevertheless, there is a long tradition of Zen students “becoming enlightened” in various ways, either suddenly or gradually.
So what’s the point? Can we do anything at all to bring us closer to our spiritual goal?
Well, part of the tradition and discipline of Zen is the emphasis on experiential meditation. That to say, the Zen style of meditation is to basically “just sit.” One does not try to achieve anything. There is no goal. There is no aim. One just sits in the experiential now-ness of the present moment, relaxing or letting-go into the act of sitting in the present moment.
Another tradition in Zen is that of “koans,” which are essentially like paradoxical stories or expressions that are meant to snap our consciousness out of false binaries and dichotomies such that we come into what has been called “nondual awareness,” which is a mode of being wherein we are thrown into the phenomenology of our present experience without necessarily structuring our experience in terms of subject vs object, ego vs environment.
Here’s a pretty classic example of a Koan:
The Master Tozan was weighing some flax. A monk came up to him in the storeroom and said, “Tell me, what is Buddha?” Tozan answered, “Here: five pounds of flax.”
On its face, this makes no logical sense. But that’s precisely the point. The paradoxical nature of the statement is meant to break past the logical limitations of our ego-consciousness and open a deeper portal to the ocean of nondual awareness.
Now, I am obviously just barely scratching the surface of the complex history and tradition of Zen Buddhism. But giving a complete account is far beyond the scope of this brief essay, which is really more about its relationship to Christianity, and whether or not Christians should bother learning about Zen (short answer: yes.)
Christianity and Zen: Meister Eckhart and Letting-go
So what does all this paradoxical nondual awareness stuff have to do with Christian spirituality?
Surprisingly, quite a bit. Consider the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart and his concept of Gelassenheit, which has been translated variously as “detachment” or “letting-go-ness.”
Eckhart asks, “What, then, is the essential prerequisite for the birth of Christ in my soul?” His answer: “it is detachment, self-abandonment.”
And what does it mean to detach, to abandon one’s self? Consider Eckhart’s description of detachment:
Dionysius says the race is nothing but a turning away from all creatures and a union with the uncreated. 10 And when the soul has got so far, it loses its name and is drawn into God, so that in itself it becomes nothing, just as the sun draws the dawn into itself and annihilates it. To this state nothing brings a man but pure detachment. To this we may add a saying of St. Augustine, ‘The soul has a secret entrance to the divine nature, when all things become nothing for it.’ 11 On earth, this entrance is nothing but pure detachment, and when the detachment reaches its climax, it becomes ignorant with knowing, loveless with loving, and dark with enlightenment. Thus we may understand the words of a master, that the poor in spirit are they who have abandoned all things to God, just as He possessed them when we did not exist.12 None can do this but a pure, detached heart.
Notice when Eckhart says that with pure detachment we become “ignorant with knowing, loveless with loving, and dark with enlightenment.” That sounds awfully like a Zen Koan to me!
But Eckhart, as a great mystic, is getting right down to the same paradox of seeking that Zen Masters have recognized for centuries: in order to find our Spiritual Truth, we must let go of all ego attachment, including the very attachment to the idea of our ego “becoming enlightened.”
In the Christian context, what this amounts to is getting to a state of letting-go-ness such that we “draw ourselves into God” and essentially become abandoned in our detachment to God.
Meister Eckhart also said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”
This is a very Buddhist thing to say. Buddha taught that the key to spiritual wisdom is to let go of our attachments and desires. In other words, spirituality is about cutting out excess parts of ourselves, getting down to the basic truth of our own nondual awareness.
For the Christian, this “nondual awareness” could be thought of as a process of letting go into the Grace of God’s infinite presence. It is a process of subtraction, a cutting away of all attachment to the things of the world.
This is not to say that one must be a perfect ascetic and deny oneself all worldly pleasure. Eckhart points that that asceticism involves its own kind of not-letting-go. Thus, to be truly detached means also to let go of the “necessity” of asceticism as a means of getting closer to God.
For there is no “method” for getting closer to God. There is no action the ego can take to reliably get closer to God, for our closeness to God is a gift from God, freely given to us. It is not something we “strive for” or “earn.” We do not “achieve” the experience of God; God gives Her experience of Herself to us, and in so doing, makes us that much closer to the true state of divinity.
The Paradox of Detachment
In this sense, Christianity and Zen Buddhism share a lot of common. Both emphasize that “method” is not a reliable means of getting closer to God. There is a Zen story that goes something like this: a student seeks out a Master and asks him how long it will take to reach enlightenment if he is disciplined and meditates every day. “Ten years,” says the Master. The student then asks, “And what if I show extra discipline and meditate ever harder. How long then?” The Master replies, “Twenty years.”
The point is that method is not going to get us the spiritual enlightenment we wish. Does that mean that meditation is pointless? That it does not bring us closer to spiritual Truth? No, that’s not the point. Method and discipline can be wonderful things. Prayer, fasting, meditation, asceticism; all these things can be wonderful in their own way. But the point is that there are no reliable and surefire ways of getting closer to God, for that experience is something only given via the free Grace of God.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t meditate or pray or read Scripture. It just means that we should detach ourselves from the expectation that if only we do X, Y, and Z we will thereby get a certain amount of closeness to God.
Another connection to Christian mysticism and Zen is the emphasis that getting closer to God involves getting further away from language, theory, and theology. Indeed, Eckhart says, “The less theorizing you do about God, the more receptive you are to His inpouring.”
Theorizing will not bring us closer to God. This is not to say that there is no purpose in theological debate. But in terms of spirituality, we are closest to God when our minds are still, quiet, and falling deeper into the dark clouds of ignorance and unknowing.
Lessons for Christianity
In Zen, one does not theorize one’s way into enlightenment.
And this is also an important lesson for Christians, particularly in the West, where Christianity has been reduced almost entirely to a process whereby the important spiritual thing is to merely believe the right set of doctrines. In this tradition, so long as one believes the right things one is guaranteed spiritual salvation. But, of course, nobody can seem to agree on what the “right set of doctrines” is to believe, hence the endless schisms of Christianity and the absurd arrogance of supposing the finite human mind can come into definite knowledge about such things.
I recognize that I am well outside the mainstream of Christianity, but I would wager that the emphasis on “right belief” at the expense of “right action” or even “right experience” has been detrimental to the spiritual authenticity of Christianity. But what do I know; I’m just a weirdo Christian heretic.
Nevertheless, this is where it becomes so important to rediscover for ourselves the wisdom buried within the Christian contemplative tradition. And furthermore, I contend the study of “experiential” or “non-theological” spiritual practices like Zen is beneficial to anyone who wants to find a sense of spirituality that is not about what we believe, but rather, about what we experience in the process of letting-go-ness.
By letting go of our need for certainty in the realm of doctrine and theology, I believe we can actually grow closer to God by learning to find Her Presence in the still quietude of our own experiential reality. This is the essential lesson Christians can learn from Zen: spirituality cannot be reduced to mere belief without risking a loss of the experiential depth of God’s own Presence.
To be better Christians, it is not enough to “believe in Christ.” One must learn to let go into Christ, falling into the reality of Christ’s own incarnation in the texture of our experiential consciousness.